An interview with Chantel Bilodeau

On the process of translation

You sustain a parallel career as playwright and translator. How does this impact your work as a playwright? Are there examples, for instance, of a translation project impacting directly upon your own process and/or creation of something new?

Translating is very similar to studying a play. I have to consider every single action and every single word. I have to look at patterns, rhythms, levels of language, cultural references and historical contexts. I have to understand the characters and their motivations. I have to listen to the author's breath, conjure up the poetic images and connect intellectually to the themes and ideas. In short, I have to see the work both as a whole, from a bird's eye point-of-view, and in all its details, from the perspective of a wordsmith. For that reason, I feel that translation has been one of my most influential teachers. Its lessons have informed everything I write and made me a far better writer. They have opened up my notions of structure, broadened my aesthetic and given me tools I may never have acquired otherwise. In addition, I become so intimate with the plays and authors I translate that they end up inspiring me, both directly and indirectly. I often use plays I have translated as models for my own work. Yet since those plays tend to be very different from mine, by the time what I am trying to emulate – whether it is a formal device or a particular way of writing dialogue – has gone through my own filter, it is barely recognizable. Conversely, there have been instances where I have noticed a sentence structure or a pattern in my own plays that reminded me of something I translated. In those cases, I think I internalized the lesson from the translated work and it manifested itself in my own work without me even realizing it.

What was your first experience in translation as a theatrical translator? What led to this parallel career?

Right after I moved to New York City in 2002, one of my plays was accepted in a festival at the Lark Play Development Center. I had just come from Ohio, where I attended graduate school, and was interested in translation. Being from Montreal and writing in a second language (French is my mother tongue), I saw translation as a way of keeping the French Canadian part of myself alive. At that time, Michael Johnson-Chase was in charge of international programming at the Lark. After I expressed my interest in translating French African authors, he told me that the Lark did have a translation program and that they would certainly be interested in French African plays. Naïve and inexperienced, I imagined this meant that a highly organized department with several staff members and plenty of resources was going to shepherd me along a well-established process. But Michael burst that bubble when he told me to find a play I liked and get back to him.

Since I was new to the city and to the field, I turned to the only resource that was available to me: the Internet. I found a few French-African playwrights and was able to get in touch with them. They, in turn, put me in touch with other playwrights and soon, I had a pile of 20-30 plays to read. Out of these, I zeroed in on two plays by Côte d'Ivoire playwright Koffi Kwahulé. When I brought those to Michael, (at which point I thought the "translation department" of my imagination was going to kick into gear and make the whole thing happen), he very enthusiastically said that this was great but that we now needed to find money. I went back to the Internet and after more research, discovered that the French Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York had a grant to support translation projects. The Lark applied on my behalf and some months later, my first translation project was born.

Although you mostly translate work of other dramatists into English, what led to the process of translating your own play originally written in English and translated into French-Canadian? Could you talk about the experience you had as a writer moving from one version of yourself into another? Did you consider different audiences watching the work? Were there pesky word choices that seemed un-translatable? Did you find yourself at war with your own writing or did you find a happy medium in the process? Did the work you did on the French-Canadian version then impact the work on the English version of the script? Did you go back, in other words, and make changes based on your own process of translation?

There is an organization in Montreal, called the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD), which supports playwrights writing in French. They are a little bit like New Dramatists in New York or the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis – they provide development support and advocacy to a group of member playwrights. I had been in the United States for over ten years at that point and wanted to join CEAD because I was flirting with the idea of writing plays in French, which is something I had never done, having gotten all my theatre training in the United States. To apply to CEAD, you have to submit a play written in French. I didn't have any so I decided to translate Pleasure & Pain, which had been recently produced at Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

I thought the exercise would be fun but it was excruciating. First, I had already worked on the play for several years, and gone through readings and workshops and a production so the last thing I wanted to do was rewrite it one more time. Second, after ten years immersed in the English language, my French language skills were not as sharp as they had once been. I found myself struggling to figure out tone, proper grammar and vocabulary. Sentences would end up halfway between a French and an English construction, and I would stare at them baffled and frustrated, trying to figure out exactly what was wrong.

In addition, I discovered that a certain emotional distance was getting lost in the translation process. Since English is not my first language, it is always, in a way, one step removed. There is a bigger distance between me, the artist, and what I am expressing when that expression is manifested through the filter of the English language. When that same artistic expression is translated into my native French, the emotional distance collapses and I suddenly feel very exposed. It is almost as if English is something I can hide behind while French provides no safe place – it is simply and most authentically who I am. Being forced to embrace my own work (and myself, I suppose) in a much deeper way was not something I expected and probably contributed to making the exercise somewhat uncomfortable.

Finally, throughout the process, I consistently went back and forth between the French and the English version. Either I would come across a line for which the motivation wasn't clear (which made it impossible to translate) and would have to go back and fix the English, or I would stumble upon a passage I knew I wanted to change and, in order to save time, would write it directly in French and then have to translate it back to English. This was annoying and considerably slowed me down. I felt like a hamster running around and around in a wheel but never getting anywhere.

Looking back, I am not sorry I went through the exercise of translating myself. I think it was a valuable experience and it taught me a lot about my own process. But I am not convinced I would do it again. If the opportunity presented itself, I would be more inclined to work with a translator and support his or her vision of my play rather than to translate it myself.

Theatrical translation carries with it a different set of skills than, say, other kinds of translation. For instance, the spoken language of the text alone does not carry meaning. Theatre is three-dimensional and each culture has its own theatre history and ways of receiving the highly symbolic language of the theatre experience. There are markedly different expectations, I would say, in English language-only theatre in terms of how audiences have been conditioned to experience and/or "accept" elements of storytelling and theatricality. Could you imagine Pleasure & Pain being done in Montreal? If so, do you think the audiences would respond differently than the audience at the San Francisco premiere at the Magic Theatre?

I can imagine Pleasure & Pain being done in Montreal. The subject matter would be less shocking than it might be in the United States but I think people would respond to it. (Then again, I could be wrong because it was never actually produced so there may be aspects of the theatre culture in Montreal I don't get.)

On the other hand, what is more difficult to imagine is that the audience and the theatre community in Montreal would readily embrace me, a French Canadian woman who writes in English and translates her work back to French. This may not sound remarkable on this side of the border but in Quebec, where the French-speaking population is surrounded by an overwhelmingly English-speaking majority and therefore hyper-aware of the politics of language, such a convoluted linguistic path is impossible to ignore. So in that context, the difficulty doesn't reside so much in the translation of the symbolic language of the theatre experience, but in the transposition of linguistic realities that are in one context (the United States), almost irrelevant, but in the other (Quebec), highly politically charged. I believe this aspect of who I am plays a bigger role in determining whether my work is accessible or not to Quebec audiences than the actual content or aesthetic of my plays.

How has your work changed, if at all, from undergoing the process of translating yourself?

Since the French translation of Pleasure & Pain was never produced, I feel its impact on me was minimal. I lived with it for as long as it took to do it and then it was over. Had I gone through production or even some form of development with the translation, I imagine it would have had a more lasting impact. I would have experienced the full extent of the process – I would have worked with French Canadian dramaturges and actors and directors, and would no doubt have discovered subtle differences in their way of approaching the material. We would have wrestled with cultural differences. The translation would have been spoken out loud, embodied by actors and I would have had the chance to see what was working and what was not. As it is, the process feels very incomplete. (Maybe that's why I tend to refer to it as an exercise.) I learned that I couldn't think in French as well as I used to, that I didn't particularly enjoy translating myself but I was never able to experience how my work could live and breathe in Quebec which, really, was the whole point of the exercise. But I suppose even that is a lesson.

Click here to read Chantal Bilodeau's Pleasure & Pain, also in the July 2013 issue.